M.A.X.: Mechanized Assault & Exploration
DOS - 1996
Also released on: Windows
Description of M.A.X.: Mechanized Assault & Exploration
A Thinking Man's Red Alert?
It's a couple of months since I looked at the M.A.X. demo, which didn't really grab me. I was thus very pleasantly surprised by the full retail version, which has me way too hooked for my own good. What makes M.A.X. a cut above the pack? Well, it has slick graphics and audio which in many ways surpasses that in Red Alert, and a depth of gameplay which gives the more thoughtful strategy player something to really think about. To "get into" M.A.X. you have to grasp some novel concepts, as I'll explain in a moment, but M.A.X. shows its strength in its fresh look and feel and in the way it generally requires the use of combined arms for success.
M.A.X. is set in a star system in which eight clans clash for dominance of planets. Commanding these clans are the best military minds to hand. Or should I say the best brains, for M.A.X. commanders have their brains extracted from their bodies and put into a sophisticated control system from which they can give orders to their forces on the ground. A high price to pay for the privilege of leadership!
Installing is very easy, and the manual a helpful and well-written 100 pages. At a glance M.A.X. resembles Red Alert ; in practise there's a lot of differences. There are several ways to play M.A.X.. The most challenging games are the fixed scenarios and the campaign mode, but equally inticing is the "custom" game option, which gives you a "random" battle. M.A.X. also caters for LAN and modem play, but as that requires multiple copies of the game CD I haven't been able to test these. There are 24 fixed scenarios, one long campaign, and as much custom play as you can handle on any of 24 game maps taken from four different planets.
The custom option lets you choose your game - you pick the game options, which map you want to use and which clan you wish to fight for. Each clan has an advantage in a certain area - that might be in naval units, aircraft, radar ability, heavy weapons, fast units, etc. This means that each clan has in theory a style of play to which it's suited.
In custom games you can choose how much "cash" you have to buy your landing force, and you can select exactly what you want to take down to start your colony with. You might go for emphasis on fast scouts, long-range missile crawlers, production units, you name it. The choice you make is quite important; certainly production units are vital to help your colony grow fast, but the enemy AI, on the tougher difficulty levels, will expose any hole in your defences ruthlessly. Taking along tanks and mobile AA units can thus also be a wise move.
The campaign and scenario missions have preset forces, though you can usually build new vehicles and structures, and make upgrades too. M.A.X. 's custom games are great fun, but perhaps not as challenging as the scenarios, as Interplay seems to have put a lot of thought into making them quite tricky. However, the complexity of the M.A.X. game system makes the AI less lethal in "open" custom play. While it will exploit openings, it's less able to choose to make sacrifices for long-term gains. But more of that later.
Simultaneous Turn-based What?
With the game options comes the first novel game concept. While M.A.X. can be played as a relatively conventional turn-based game, it also supports a turn-based-simultaneous mode. That's not real-time play as such, what it means is that each side gets to make its moves for the turn at the same time. While you're setting up your base you may not notice the difference that much, but once you run into enemies the system takes on an exciting dimension as you vie to make cut and thrust moves at the right moment.
Weird, yes, but not altogether unreasonable. For M.A.X. gives you so much to do in a turn that a true real-time system would not allow you to apply the necessary time to building and resource management while still controlling your fighting units. The "simultaneous" compromise gives a nice "buzz", particularly as you can set the turn timer from 1 to 6 minutes, and doing everything you want to in that little time still gets a tense business. Moreso with the female voiceover announcing "20 seconds remaining" as you panic blindly. There's also an "end turn" timer; when one player finishes, the other has a very limited time to finish his/her turn.
I've played M.A.X. turn-based and simultaneous, and both are enjoyable. The latter puts you under more pressure, the former is more sedate and relaxed, so you can choose the style to suit you. The good news is that M.A.X. units can use reaction fire, so you don't have to comamnd them to open up on approaching enemies, you can build defences which will automatically attack targets in range.
Resources and Production
Cue the second relatively novel feature. M.A.X. requires you to mine gold, materials and fuel to build your colony up. Rather than have a central pool of resources, in M.A.X. resources can only be shared between connected buildings. This means that if you need to mine gold at a remote site, you either need a pipeline to the site or a gold truck to ferry the goods back to you main base (where gold can be refined allowing you to buy unit upgrades).
All structures are built by either engineer or constructor vehicles; engineers build the smaller things like gun turrets and storage silos while constructors build large buildings like mines and vehicle plants. Each needs to carry materials on board to be able to build, so as long as your engineer has enough material it can go and build (say) a missile site anywhere on map. However, unless that site is connected, it will need to be manually reloaded by an ammo truck.
This means that M.A.X. has very interesting "supply" rules. And you also have to find the deposits in the first place by using surveying vehicles (each time you use the same game map, the resources will be randomised). While having to restock your engineers/constructors may be something which will frustrate some people, it is easy to do and makes the gameplay far more interesting. Locating material, fuel and gold resources is critical to quick expansion.
You can allocate your resource production - each map square (M.A.X. uses squares not hexes) can have up to 16 resource points, so ideally you place mines at clusters of resources. Each mine can only harvest 16 points of combined resources per turn, so you may have to tune between materials, gold and fuel as it's needed. Luckily the game will automatically do this for you, eg. if you build a training hall the game will turn on a power generator if needed, and adjust fuel mining if required. You can manually override this to build up fuel, gold or material stockpiles if you wish.
This juggling of resources makes M.A.X. a kind of "sim-colony" in its own right, without any enemies to deal with, and as such it's fun to expand. Little extras like bulldozers which can recover material from destroyed buildings all add to the well-rounded feel of the resources system.
M.A.X. has some very good gameplay elements, and it backs those up with high quality presentation. All the action happens in SVGA, though that is becoming a standard these days. What isn't standard though is that M.A.X. 's game view window lets you zoom right in or well out from the planet surface and still play the game at any of those zoom levels. This is great, and while you'll usually settle at a medium zoom, it is very handy to be able to get a wider or closer view from time to time, and doing so is as easy as moving a simple slider bar.
Display options let you see all manner of useful info, or very little if you want an uncluttered display. You can see unit sides, hit points, fire ranges, scanning ranges, ammo levels, statuses or names. You can overlay the surveyed resources data, and toggle the game grid onto the map. The grid is not that important in combat though, as the range circles tell you want you want to know. The circles, combined with the scaleable view and options, make M.A.X. a joy to interact with.
Controlling units is simple once you learn the system. One click selects a unit, then you can either left-click an enemy to attack it (moving over several turns if need be) or left-click the map to move somewhere. Left-clicking the unit again brings up a menu of options which vary depending on the unit. You may be able to shoot, go into "sentry" mode, transfer materials/gold/fuel, repair or rearm a unit, enter a building for upgrade, lay or pick up a mine, etc etc. All in all quite slick once you adjust to the system.
Reinforcing the graphics are some first rate sound effects and a rather sexy female voice which acknowledges your orders. The background music is OK, but nothing special; if anything it is just that, music for the background. It's lucky the music isn't important to the game feel as with a double-speed CD like I have you have to turn it off to get acceptable game performance. On a quad-speed drive no problem though - the excellent video clips can then can be accompanied by sound and run very smoothly.
The game screen also shows a 3D model of the selected unit (which optionally can be seen rotating) and stats for the selected unit. Right-clicking a unit brings up a detailed information screen. Interestingly you can see full details on freiendly and enemy units, but due to the rather "precise" nature of M.A.X. combat, that's really a required feature.
I say "precise" because in M.A.X. every unit has an attack, armour and hits rating. These may be upgraded during the game, but are always visible. When a unit fires at an enemy it always hits (unlike Red Alert), and always does damage equal to the difference in attack over armour, and a minimum of one point. This means that you can precalculate what you need to achieve a task, something not possible in, say, Red Alert. And because radar scan ranges and firing ranges are also fixed, you can make some very exact plans which you know will work, if, of course, you have the scan range to see all enemy threats, and the enemy doesn't have weaponry which exceeds your scan range!
Units have a number of shots per turn; as they move, they lose shots (using the status display option tells you how far they can move without losing a shot). Shooting can also use movement points up. Full-paced assaults are hard to do as very few units can move a long way and fire, scouts and fighter planes being two of the few exceptions.
The AI will often hover units just out of firing range of your own forces. Keeping a close tab on range is very important. In some cases you can use it to your advantage, by drawing fire on a less valuable unit, or upgrading a missile site's firing range while the enemy is just outside it's current range ... the key is to always have your defensive areas covered. If you leave anything exposed you can bank on the expert level AI to pick it off. What the AI rarely does though is, say, sacrifice 2 of 5 tanks to take out an important artillery site. I appreciate making an AI which understands this is non-trivial, and moreso given M.A.X. 's quite complex game system, but it's a fact you can rely on all too easily.
Why is that important? Well, because M.A.X. lets you score (in custom games) one point per turn per ecosphere you own; and if you put up a good defence the AI never seems to come after you in force, even if on the verge of a points defeat. Luckily fixed scenarios usually see you on the attack. One way around the custom AI overcautiousness is to set your own goals, eg. to prevent any enemy (in a custom game you have 1-3 opponents) amassing a certain points total, or set a turn limit by which to eliminate all enemies. That ismore challenging! After all, Warcraft and Red Alert don't ususally reward you for defence...
While the game has this "precise" feel, it's still very hectic in simultaneous mode; enemy units can move in and out of view quite rapidly so forming quick plans is never simple. What is important is that you combine land, sea and air units along with good radar coverage in order to succeed. Combined arms tactics pay off. You need mobile AA to deter enemy ground attack planes, fighters to combat enemy fighters and AWACs, missile crawlers for long range attacks, gun and adrtillery turrets for base defence, subs to nail enemy shipping and corvettes to detect enemy subs, etc etc.
One unit is particularly fun - the infiltrator is a special infantry unit only detectable by enemy infantry. It can disable enemy units and buildings, and capture fighting units (including the "alien" equipment which sometimes can be found). Disabling AA sites can leave the skies free for your ground attack planes, while disabling fighting units gives you a "free" chance to capture them with no risk of detection. The AI doesn't make much use of infiltrators, but they are potentially very powerful, especially when offloaded by "invisible" submerged APCs...
Combat units and sites can be upgraded in battle. To do this you either build research centers to research one topic (can be slow) or alternatively you use refined gold to purchase specific upgrades for specific unit types; then new units will have the upgrades - old units will need to visit a depot, dock or hanger to be refitted.
The combat action is backed up by a number off well-designed info and utility screens. The sumary screen is very precise telling you all vehicle statuses and what they're up to. One click, and you're at the thing you're interested in in the right place on the map.
Not many, and they are outweighed by some seriously innovative and fresh features present in M.A.X.. The AI isn't as aggressive in custom games as it could be, but fine in (more defensive) scenario games. The game uses squares in place of hexes, but then so does the likes of Warcraft even if you can't see them. And units have no fuel stats - game fuel is merely to power your generators; however keeping units in ammo and repaired is enough to keep you occupied - having to refuel would likely add one too many details to micromanage. One thing I would like to see though is more varied terrain; what there is is quite bland - more hills, valleys and interesting features please.
There are several little things that help make playing that bit easier. Factories can be set to repeat jobs and have build queues. Roads and pipelines can be built over a set path rather than square by square. Units can be put on sentry mode to attack enemies on sight, and can be grouped easily for mass movement (though they don't hold formation at all well). You can hit F1 to go to the place the last message referred to, or quickly see a list of all recent event messages.
I really enjoyed M.A.X.. It's fresh, fun and packed with great ideas and concepts. M.A.X. is a "thinking man's Red Alert ". It has just the right amount of things for the player to manage; enough to keep the interest alive but not so much as to make gameplay tedious. Interplay are looking to address the custom game AI in the next patch (1.04 at the time of writing) as well as some multiplayer issues (which I was unable to test). M.A.X. may not appeal to the purist real-time brigade, yet it still combines tense limited-time game turns with the detail which more conventional wargamers will appreciate, and as a whole it blends together very nicely. Highly recommended.
Review By GamesDomain
Captures and Snapshots
Comments and reviews
dawdbc 2022-07-19 -1 point
Can you tell me how to place air and land units in the same square? When I try to do it the cursor changes to select. Thank you!
Uncus 2020-07-15 -1 point
i agree with Walde - this is probably my favorite game of all time. I'm not sure if I have seen the 200 turns bug, but i do sometimes get CTD. The worst part is that I lose everything else running in the background and have even had to fixdsk because it took out the mbr on the drive [probably because it thinks it is in C drive]. Having moved my Windows to D drive, I hope to be safe in the future from this.
BUY it from GOG - you get both MAX and MAX2 [not as good, but i think more stable]. It is well worth the price!
Another good old strategy game if you can find it is Perfect General II. The AI is not great, but getting a Perfect rating is still very difficult in some scenarios.
Walde 2019-03-28 0 point DOS version
The best game ever. I have played it since it was published and I'm still playing it 23 years later. Shame that it has memory related bugs, that prevent you playing it past 200+ turns.
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